White sculptor's 'un-African' statue of Martin Luther King divides the South

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The Independent US

It was natural that the people of Rocky Mount would wish to honour the memory of Dr Martin Luther King.

It was in the North Carolina city that the civil rights leader first tested what would become his most famous speech, declaring in November 1962: "My friends in Rocky Mount, I have a dream tonight."

But plans to honour Dr King's memory by commissioning a bronze statue have triggered a huge disagreement in what is already a divided city, with members of the black population making accusations against white officials.

The critics say the pose of the statue appears "arrogant" and Dr King's face does not look realistic. But what has really upset them is that the sculptor is white.

The critics are demanding that the sculpture be recast - at least its head - with a different pose and a more "African" face. Kimberle Evans, one of the most outspoken critics of the $56,000 (£32,000) statue, said: "We need an artist who can relate."

Rocky Mount is an hour from Raleigh, the increasingly well-heeled city at the centre of North Carolina's hi-tech boom. But while it may be geographically close, residents say Rocky Mount is in a different world. A railway track runs through the town, dividing white and black neighbourhoods, whose citizens are split 45/55 respectively.

Fred Turnage, the city's mayor, said plans to erect a statue started in 1997 and were part of a memorial park. The city commissioned Erik Blome, an Illinois-based sculptor, to create the work. Mr Blome, who had cast sculptures of Rosa Parks, the civil rights icon, and Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice, prepared an 18in model which was displayed in the city's museum. Mr Turnage said: "I guess that most people did not take the time to go and see it. The committee that was looking after the statue approved [the design]. The model was on display for quite some time."

But while the model did not attract any criticism, people began complaining the day after the real thing was erected. Elbert Lee, 71, a Baptist preacher who knew Dr King, told The New York Times: "That ain't Dr King. The lips, the eyes, the head, the moustache, the cheeks. It doesn't favour him."

Mr Blome, 36, has refused to back down, claiming he is the victim of a political battle. Critics claim Mr Turnage commissioned the statue to win votes because one of his opponents in the last election was black. Mr Blome said: "I am an artist first and being a politician is not something I am really about. Ninety per cent of people in Rocky Mount think this is a silly argument and wish it would go away. Most people do not feel strongly about [the statue]. They just want the [problem] to go away."

The city council has set up a public consultation committee to decide what to do with the statue. Lamont Wiggins, a black lawyer who liaises between the committee and the city council, said the committee was likely to recommend taking off the statue's head and having it reset. He said: "There are still some outstanding issues, including the funding."

Meanwhile, Dr King, who tested his speech in Rocky Mount a year before he delivered it on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, continues to look out over the town, his back to a number of abandoned tobacco barns.